Make the best choice for every shot.
The orientation of any image can transform the emotions of a photo, from playful or intimate to dramatic or detached. But while a horizontal image for landscape photography or a vertical subject in an upright portrait shot might seem natural, image orientation isn’t always intuitive.
Most cameras — whether they’re smartphones or DSLR cameras — only capture rectangular pictures, so you only have two options. Discover how, given the options of landscape orientation or vertical format, you can select the right approach for the best shot.
The difference between portrait and landscape orientation.
Landscape images align with the horizon line. The photo is wider than it is tall, to capture the vastness of a natural setting. This view is landscape orientation or horizontal orientation. Your TV screen is an example of landscape mode.
Portrait photography often uses a vertical orientation to capture an entire person or subject, or to place emphasis on a subject, as in a close-up head-and-shoulders headshot. Photos are taller than they are wide in portrait orientation. By default, smartphones display in portrait orientation.
Typically, subjects with strong vertical orientations — like people, tall buildings, and waterfalls — work best in a portrait orientation, while scenery like a mountain range displays best in a horizontal orientation. However, scenery and people can be captured with either portrait format or landscape format. The primary considerations are your style, how you will use the image, and what you want to convey to the viewer.
Consider how you will use the image.
You’ll want to know where an image will appear prior to photographing that busy toddler, creampuff vintage car, or towering skyscraper. Different applications often call for either a portrait orientation or landscape orientation.
For example, if you’re posting to Instagram, or many other scrolling-based online image viewing sites and platforms, shoot in portrait format. If it’s a website banner for a desktop browser, landscape orientation is an obvious choice. However, for the mobile version of that same website, portrait images would be a better fit. Here are some general guidelines.
In all circumstances, the setting and your photographer’s eye will influence the decision.
Tell a story and create a mood.
Once you know the intended use for your image, choose the main subject — a person or object you want to draw attention to — and decide what you want to emphasize and what to exclude to capture the emotion you want to evoke.
“When I’m in the city, a lot of the stuff I do is portrait style. Everything is really big and tall and I want to be able to show that,” photographer Aaron Rashid says. “The vertical orientation exaggerates the height. But when I’m out in the desert, it’s wide-open flat spaces and I want to show the size and distance, so I’ll shoot landscapes.” A horizontal orientation emphasizes the expanse or tranquility of farmlands, prairies, woodlands, and other outdoor spaces.
Other considerations include your shooting style, the composition, the perspective of the scene, the distance from the subject in the scene, the scene overall (foreground and background), and the emphasis you want to place on the subject.
“I try as much as I can to get the golden ratio incorporated in my image somehow,” says Rashid. “I’ll look for ways that I can break it up into the rule of thirds.”
Understand the rule of thirds.
Use camera modes to capture the image.
Preprogrammed camera settings can help beginners learn what to look for in the camera’s manual settings. For example, whether shooting portraits or a horizontal image, you might want to blur the background to draw attention to your subject. The portrait mode on your smartphone camera will automatically shorten the depth of field, keeping your subject in focus while blurring the background. Using a DSLR or mirrorless camera in manual mode, you’ll need to know the focus range of your lens. Get as close to your subject as possible and zoom in as far as you can, and choose the largest aperture available on your camera.
Smaller apertures typically make everything in your image really crisp, as opposed to larger aperture settings, often used to blur the background with a bokeh effect in portraits. Use lower apertures for landscapes. And set your camera up on a tripod so you can use longer shutter speeds.
Change the image post-shoot.
Finesse your composition.
Flip your image.
Crop to shape your photo.
You can modify your image composition with the Crop tool.
Change the aspect ratio.
Various applications call for specific aspect ratios such as 1:1 (square) or 16:9 (widescreen). You can use the aspect ratio drop-down if you need a specific one, or use the original aspect ratio. You can also rotate the aspect ratio from landscape to portrait with the X key, or click the flip icon.
Straighten the image.
A crooked photo creates visual tension. It can be dramatic. But it can be jarring if you don’t want to convey a sense of imbalance or chaos. If your horizontal and vertical lines should be straight but aren’t, you can align them in both Lightroom and Photoshop.
In Lightroom, click the crop icon (or the R key) to reveal the grid overlay. Grab the rotate icon (two arrows) that’s just outside the box to rotate your image until it aligns with the grid lines. Lightroom also provides a Straighten slider below the Crop tool. Double-tap the middle of the slider bar for an initial adjustment. You can tweak it from there.
Use the Perspective Crop tool in Photoshop to make a box around something angled that should be straight, and it will automatically adjust it. You can also hover outside of the corner handles and click and drag to line things up.
Ramirez recommends using Camera Raw inside of Photoshop to adjust an image perspective.
- Go to Filter › Camera Raw filter › Geometry
- Select the Guided icon
- Draw two or more guides (lines) on the image to adjust the perspective
- Click OK
You can create a crop preset if there’s a dimension you use frequently.
- Select New Crop Preset from the drop-down menu
- Photoshop provides a name or you can type a custom name in the data field of the dialog box
- Click OK
The next time you open the drop-down menu, your preset crop dimensions will be available near the bottom of the menu.
Learn from a pro photographer.
Photographer Chris Burkard captures landscapes from around the world, giving people a sense of places they may never go. Hear Burkard share tips on scale and perspective to help you understand ways to use different photo orientations.
Your choice isn’t necessarily final.
It takes patience, practice, and intuition to create stunning images. Start experimenting. Don’t let the dilemma of portrait vs. landscape hold you back. On a photoshoot, context helps make the call as to how to orient your photos. You can focus on the main subject and exclude everything else, emphasize the wide-open spaces, or try both perspectives.
Remember that you’re creating art to tell a story and elicit an emotion. Use the orientation that tells that story best.
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